The Round House Theatre, now of downtown Bethesda instead of a nondescript suburb, inaugurates a new era tomorrow night with the opening of a spanking new $7 million facility. Pat Carroll is headlining Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" as the Stage Manager; the cast is the biggest that Round House has ever known. Performances have been added to the run. Many shows are already sold out.

The handsome new building, complete with well-equipped offices, rehearsal space and lots of amenities for actors and audiences, is a symbol of hard-won independence for Round House. For years the company was a program of the Montgomery County recreation department, performing in a hard-to-find county building in suburban Silver Spring. The only after-theater dining option was a lonely McDonald's.

It was a quirky, makeshift spot for a theater. But like any theater that hangs around long enough, it became the site of an unusual story or two that are worth preserving before the dazzle of the new digs obliterates the memory of the oddball place.

Like the time a wheelchair caught fire onstage while Marty Lodge was performing a monologue in "Dog Logic."

"That's my favorite story," Lodge says.

Jane Beard -- who, like Lodge, has been acting with Round House for more than a decade -- tells it for him. One of the props was an old wheelchair with a canvas seat, and it had somehow been placed by an usher near a stage light on the floor. Soon enough, the thing was ablaze. Lodge didn't notice it until an audience member piped up a few times, "Excuse me . . ."

Beard, proud of her colleague's composure, says, "Marty went over and put it out and kept right on with the scene."

It didn't always take a fire for Round House patrons to get verbal. Last year Beard was starring in "The Smell of the Kill," a dark comedy about a trio of housewives bent on revenge. As Beard made an entrance, someone sitting near the stage told her quietly, "You look beautiful in that dress."

Nestled as it was in a suburban elementary school that became the county rec department's headquarters, Round House generated an ambiance that differed a bit from typical downtown theaters. Lodge says stage manager Cheryl Repeta puts it this way: "When I go out for a cigarette at Woolly Mammoth, I watch the rats. When I go out for a cigarette at Round House, I watch the bunnies."

"God love the place," says Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon. "It became a lovely thing for us -- to be an actor on that stage and to know the sweet spots, and just to sit in one of those sweet spots and pursue an action and a beat, and really sense where you were. . . . It's like that old dance exercise, closing your eyes and lifting up on the balls of your feet and turning very slowly with your head raised and knowing where you are at any given moment. In that place you knew where you were. I loved it; it was a great space."

"The one thing I will not miss," says Beard, "is people coming to a show and saying, 'Wow, you guys are really good.' "

Lodge agrees. "A lot of people were surprised at the kind of theater we were able to do there," he says. "Now, people will expect us to be good."

Classy buildings bring those kinds of expectations, and the new theater is indeed an elegant place. It's a free-standing stone-and-glass building on East-West Highway a half block east of Wisconsin Avenue, basically a rectangle with a single curved corner that keeps the troupe's name from being a total anomaly. The spacious lobby has a glass front two stories high; the upscale color scheme is butterscotch and "shy cherry." The security system is so elaborate that when staffers wave a tiny key chain wand in the direction of the doors, they hear their names announced by an electronic voice.

Inside, the theater has plum-color seats, olive walls and a wide, modified apron stage -- a proscenium arrangement that juts out slightly into the audience. The standard capacity is likely to be 347, but with the thrust removed and two voms (semi-aisles descending from the stage and underneath the audience) covered up by seating, the theater can hold as many as 400. The capacity at the old place was 218, yet Whiddon proudly points out that there are only two more rows in this broad new theater, not counting the comfortable balcony. The actors and audience will still be in close contact.

This building gives Round House two things it's never known: an attractive physical presence and a terrific location. The theater is just a block from the Bethesda Metro station, and a short walk to the area's thriving restaurants and movie houses, so the company expects to draw customers who may have been unwilling to seek it out before. Subscriptions -- both renewals and from new customers -- are already booming.

This has been a long time coming for Round House, one of the end points of a privatization effort that began nearly a decade ago. The group, which got started as a touring operation named Street 70 under the auspices of the Montgomery County recreation department, began performing on Bushey Drive as Round House Theatre in 1977 and remained a county program until the early 1990s. The theater's annual budget ultimately grew to $780,000, of which $750,000 came straight from the county, according to Peter Jablow, president of Round House's board of trustees.

By then, though, an economic downturn -- coupled with heated political discussions about the very idea of public funding for the arts -- began to worry the theater's leaders. Rather than leave the organization vulnerable to shifting political winds, Round House took the initiative of beginning to privatize. A plan was devised to wean itself off the county rolls. The county was supportive and flexible as the company incrementally lowered its public subsidy (systematically taking half as much, year after year) and learned how to go out and raise money from private sources.

"The county gave us the luxury of time," says Jablow.

"At one point," says Whiddon, "98 percent of our funding was an appropriation from the county. And then after a certain number of years, none. We were only getting stuff through the arts council, as would any arts group. But we weathered that, and we balanced the budget every year. We actually built up a surplus."

The new theater in Bethesda is part of expansion and relocation plans that include a small new performance space in Silver Spring that should be open in two years. (It will be used primarily for the company's education programs.) Chevy Chase Bank paid the $7 million to build the Bethesda theater, which it created as a public amenity in exchange for greater density allowances from the county on its headquarters towers next door. The building will be managed by the county and rented to Round House for a nominal fee, though the company will contribute $50,000 a year to a building maintenance fund.

This is part of a bigger picture in which performing arts spaces are popping up throughout the region. More than half a dozen notable companies are contemplating or actively pursuing building plans in downtown Washington, and Montgomery County is seeing its own boom in arts facilities. New projects are opening or under construction all over the county: a major concert hall at Strathmore in North Bethesda, the Black Rock Center for the Arts in Gaithersburg, and a 440-seat theater being added to the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, a complex that already boasts two stages.

The latest economic downturn means government coffers aren't as flush as they were in recent years. But Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan says that while the county won't be taking on any new projects, it will continue to support what has been started, including the county-funded $7 million black-box theater and educational facilities Round House will occupy in Silver Spring.

"I just think it adds to the quality of life," Duncan says, "and adds to the selling points for the county."

Culture seems to be the icing on the cake of Bethesda's development, where office space, restaurants and retail shops have lately been joined by the Bethesda Row art house cinemas and now Round House, with BAPA's Imagination Stage (a youth-oriented theater) to join the area soon.

"I'm a local boy," says Lodge, "so I'm excited by this. I remember when Bethesda was two movie theaters and a doughnut shop."

Bethesda seems ready for Round House. The brisk ticket sales are an obvious way to measure this, of course, but there was another sort of signal when Beard, shopping in one of the nearby clothing stores, was offered a discount on a sweater. To her surprise, she was told: "I'll put it on sale for you. You're Jane Beard."

Although luring a guest artist of Pat Carroll's stature certainly puts a little sparkle on the marquee, Whiddon is cautious about trying to remake the company in the building's image: bigger, flashier. He chose to mark the new space with "Our Town" -- which he is directing but not acting in -- because it requires no set and no props, just actors. As Lodge says: "Yeah, now we can lift people hydraulically through the floor. But that doesn't mean we should." (At the same time, Beard declares, "I want to do big plays.")

The 2002-03 season won't feature any radical departures: "The Cherry Orchard"; a new play by Heather McDonald called "When Grace Comes In"; Craig Wright's tender three-actor romance "The Pavilion"; "Pippin"; and another go at "Love and Anger" by Round House favorite George F. Walker. The company did the play in the old space 11 years ago.

"I want to see what we do with it here," Whiddon explains.

Still, Whiddon couldn't have done "Our Town" at the old Round House, at least not without having a lot of the actors play two or three roles. As Lodge says, "Thirty people in the room is new for us."

"The cast is enormous," Whiddon moans, his head in his hands. Dozens of actors on salary: new territory. The budget for the season just ending is $2.7 million, according to Jablow; by the time the Silver Spring space opens, Round House is likely to be a $4 million-a-year operation. Looking back at the company's recent dependence on county funds, Jablow notes, "That's a helluva jump."

Had Round House not initiated the move to privatize a decade ago, Whiddon suspects that the company might not now exist. It was all about self-determination; now the kids have grown up and are moving into a bigger place.

"I think," Whiddon says, "this space is going to start crying out for us to consider covering even a wider range in the course of a year. And how about finding what room there is for non-text-based theater experiences? I listen to that sound system and I go, 'We've gotta get dance in here.' And not just book it in, but somehow explore that. And then when we have two performance spaces of different sizes, that's going to change things. The Zeitgeist keeps growing; it keeps changing a little bit. And that's exciting, because I don't really know what lies around the corner. All I know is that, boy, there are some things I want to do."

Artistic Director Jerry Whiddon, center, and his Round House colleagues have left their quirky digs in a former elementary school for a new building in Bethesda, far left and right, that boasts a bright and spacious lobby.